From gay semiotics to Premiership levels of conspicuous consumption, earrings have long been a signifier for men, whether of sexuality or sartorial style. Over time, endless variations of gold and silver studs and hoops have, in some shape or another, been presented on the pitch, in contemporary art – the most explicit being Hal Fischer’s Earring (1977) – in fashion magazine spreads and, as most British townies will tell you, on likely lads on high streets up and down the country. It’s a rite of passage born in Claire’s Accessories from the age of 16 – though an apple and sterilised needle will do.
Not to knock the enduring cultural relevance of Elizabeth Duke’s fine selection at Argos, but even today that safe space of jewellery counter classics can seem hard to swerve. However, having been used to explore self-expression, sexuality and storytelling on and off the menswear catwalks in recent months, it feels like men’s earrings are finally pushing into more challenging territory. Forget the simple diamond stud, legit or fake. These days, blokes are going all out with their dangly bits.
The rise of a blurring gender binaries dominates much of this shift, as trends mess with stereotypes by experimenting with materials and symbolism. And it’s not just fashion, of the clothing variety, that has been sticking a finger up to societal norms.
After seasons of showing earrings that are as radical and clever as they are fun, Martine Rose’s SS23 collection, shown last summer in a disused gay sauna in Vauxhall, south London, featured self-referencing jewellery display cards playfully worn as earrings. Then, the following February, the designer launched a capsule jewellery collection in collaboration with New York artist Lia Lowenthal’s brand LL, LLC at Pitti Uomo, alongside a suitably riotous collection that paid homage to Italy’s subversive club kids. Its feminist protest slogans, Jamaican coins from Rose’s cultural heritage and inverted menswear traditions, such as tie-clips and cufflinks, were all repurposed as earrings.
Recently launched preloved and vintage dealer Stud plays on the same traditions by taking the single earring out of its comfort zone, sourcing super-sized solid gold hoops and XXL studs in semi-precious stones such as turquoise, tiger’s eye and coral. Anecdotes from prospective buyers point to the tradition of earrings being way more than just a bit of jewellery. “Got one done at a backstreet off the West End in San Antonio, wearing an Arsenal shirt,” shares Barry. Meanwhile, Jon “pierced [his] own ear with a safety pin for a school disco. Heeled up OK. No longer throbbing gristle.”
And while the likes of Fendi, Dior and Hermès create tasteful cuffs and studs – perfect branded totems that get interesting once you start piling them up all around the ear – Stud re-codes masc classics with a more typically femme approach to proportions and colour, while maintaining the fine jewellery feel. Sold separately, dents and all. It’s all about the trimmings.
Artfully misshapen natural pearls are just as unique. Dragged into the mainstream by Harry Styles at the height of Alessandro Michele-era Gucci and now a permanent fixture in fashion – most notably seen in Simone Rocha’s sweet daisy pearl studs “for men” – heavy drop earrings reframe romance, old opulence and imperfect beauty in a powerfully transgressive context. It’s drama, an old-school ’80s statement that feels as brilliantly camp as George Michael’s Faith-era cross.
No stranger to a double dangle themselves, when it comes to making the most of ear piercings, the low-swinging diamond and pearl variety that Sam Smith commissioned jeweller Andrew Bunney to create for them are another bold lesson in wearing something decorative but classic, rather than fixating on gender.
As seen on the cover of their album Gloria, released in January, the rope and anchor designs were inspired by Little Sailor, an early song that’s important to Smith because of how fans connected with it. “Despite the diamonds and pearls, this motif is actually very simple and direct,” says Bunney.
“It’s always exciting to create something that conforms to our own rules, that feels balanced, not prescriptive, and that others can use in a way that becomes personal to them.” Blurring traditionally masculine and feminine symbols together to create something familiar and timeless yet new feels especially relevant now. Scrap the rules. This is 2023 and style is best at its most nonconforming.
“I often think pieces work best when they’re in that kind of grey area,” agrees jewellery designer Georgia Kemball, whose work mixes myth, magic and mysticism with an ethereal undone-ness. “I know I’m always trying to strike a balance, whether it’s masculine and feminine, beautiful and ugly, or tasteful and kitsch.”
While her collections are ungendered, it’s the signature gold and silver hoops with cupid and cherub pendants that always prove popular with men, not just the curb chains and chunky rings. These surprising choices are what make personal style exciting, going for the unexpected jewellery choice and making it work by experimenting.
Bringing it back full-circle, Martine Rose’sAW23 collection, shown at a community centre on a steamy June Sunday, merged punk, New Wave and rave for a wicked commentary on the state of nightlife. Amongst the bondage trouser and printed acid house tees were spiky, dangly earrings on men that looked hard-nut tough – a reference to late-’70s pins and needles that were stuck through the ears of teens around the country. As menswear shows kick off at Pitti Uomo, all eyes are on the lobes.
The only real limit to self-expression is how much your plugholes can physically endure, and that applies to everyone however you identify. “I always struggle with that,” says Kemball. “I’ll have an amazing idea for a statement earring but then when it comes to making it in metal, I realise that it would be insanely heavy and agony on the earlobes!” Pat Butcher, eat your heart out.